How a small business can survive gentrification

Flickr: John Chamberlain

Over the weekend, The Washington Post profiled the transformation of D.C. Councilman Marion Barry’s former east Capitol Hill neighborhood from a nearly all-black neighborhood to one that’s more mixed, both racially and socioeconomically.

The typical markers of gentrification are mentioned — dog parks, the old-timers lamenting no longer knowing their neighbors, and condo buildings. Then came this bit about a local small business:

Shop owners have tried to capi­tal­ize on the new arrivals.

On 15th Street, James Keo, the Cambodian-born owner of Viggy’s Liquor, said he changed the offerings when he bought the store in 2006, selling red and white wines and imported beers such as Peroni and Dos Equis. He also began selling convenience store items such as paper towels and snack food and thought about taking down the glass partition that separates him from his customers. A stabbing across the street made him reconsider.

What has surprised him, he said, is that the neighborhood’s new residents don’t mean bigger profits. In fact, he said, his earnings are down 40 percent.

“They’ve got money,” he lamented, “but they spend less.”

More money in the neighborhood often doesn’t mean more profit for existing businesses, and typically there are more stores that don’t survive gentrification than ones that do, explains John McIlwain, an expert on housing and urban issues and a senior research fellow at the Urban Land Institute.

“It’s quite a challenge for a store owner to change to a very different, significantly different clientele, and it frankly requires more than just bringing in some items they might like. It’s really a whole new repositioning of the store,” McIlwain says. “If the store sends the message that this is a store for the low-income community, most of the new residents… will look elsewhere to shop.”

Some businesses do successfully make the transition and they seem to do it by making a full commitment to reposition, as McIlwain puts it. Take Best-In Liquors, whose owner adapted to post-Whole Foods life on P Street, NW by completely revamping the store, changing inventory and taking down bullet-proof glass inside.

A business owner can try to stick with catering to the original clientele, move toward completely catering to new residents or take some kind of middle-of-the-road approach. Sadly, trying to appeal to both worlds may very well be the most difficult and less successful tactic because “neither party may feel comfortable, as opposed to going to one or the other,” McIlwain says.

Of course there are exceptions to that, too, McIlwain adds. There are the newcomer residents seeking some level of authenticity by patronizing the old neighborhood joints or those who simply want to support the longtime businesses that have been in their new neighborhoods long before they moved in. But many people still feel uncomfortable in settings outside of their norm, McIlwain says, and breaking down such racial and class barriers, even inside of a small store or restaurant, can take a lot of concerted effort.

“If a place is welcoming and the owners make it clear that everybody is welcome, then that starts to break down and change. There are lots of nuances,” McIlwain says.

The Family Behind D.C.’s Pancakes

More about D.C.’s IHOP restaurants– here’s a piece about the life of Clarence Jackson Jr., whose son I interviewed yesterday for DCentric. Both men are co-owners of the new IHOP in Columbia Heights:

As a family, Jackson and his two sons, Tyoka and Clarence Jackson III, own the first IHOP franchise in Washington, D.C. at 1523 Alabama Ave., SE. They plan to open a second one in the North West neighborhood of Columbia Heights in October. “If I told you the beginning, you would think you already knew the ending,” said Tyoka of his father. “My father’s story is about overcoming odds. Owning D.C.’s first IHOP in southeast right at Alabama and Stanton is one of the odds.”…

“When we opened the store, we all bussed tables, washed dishes and cleaned toilets,” Clarence Jackson III, remembers. Monique, Jackson’s daughter, serves as kitchen manager and is known in the area for her special recipe for the restaurant’s Fish Fridays. Also on staff are Jackson’s nieces, nephews and grandchildren.

D.C. council chairman and mayoral candidate Vincent Gray gloated over the eatery, which he hopes becomes a landmark. “Mr. Jackson, where do you think these people went before you built this store?” he asked on one of his recent visits to the Alabama Avenue IHOP.

Congress Heights resident Janetta Chambers, 45, answered the question.

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IHOP: “We are here for this community.”

When our server walked up, she put this coaster down next to our coffee pot.

Yesterday, I visited the new IHOP in Columbia Heights. It was opening day and despite the oppressively gray sky and fat rain drops, the place was almost full. I reviewed the food and wrote about my first impressions, here.

At the end of my late lunch, Briana– the most pleasant server I have encountered this year– brought over her towering boss, Clarence Jackson. He was so tall that my neck cracked from looking up at him and I was relieved when he cordially asked if he could sit down. I immediately realized that this was the “cop” whom people had commented about online, who owned both this IHOP and the one in Southeast. Suddenly, I was much less worried about hordes of marauding teens Metro-ing up from Gallery Place to invade Columbia Heights. As Briana had merrily said earlier when I asked her about potential rowdiness, “See that 6’7″ man over there? He’s my boss. And he’s a police officer. We’re not worried.”

I asked Mr. Jackson how his newest endeavor’s first day was going.

“I am very pleased.”

He inquired about my meal (and was the sixth person to do so, at that point) and I told him the truth; that it was better than I had expected and that the service was wonderful, too.

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“Speak properly, be attractive, stylish and professional.”

If I’m not out trying to track down a story, I spend the majority of my time reading. Everything. That’s why I noticed a comment left at the Washington Post– but first, some context. Last week, in this morning roundup, I mentioned that a developer wanted to bring a luxury hotel to the heart of Adams Morgan (and that he might get quite a tax break for doing so). Today, the Post reported:

For the past six years, developer Brian Friedman has been pushing a complex project that he says would reinvent Adams Morgan as a bustling attraction at all times of day, not just in the evenings. He has proposed transforming a historic church, formerly the First Church of Christ, Scientist, into a 174-room luxury hotel. His plan calls for preserving the church building and constructing a 10-story connecting building behind it, where there is now parking.

And he is asking for the city’s help, suggesting that the new hotel not be required to pay property taxes for 15 years after opening.

This article inspired a commenter named MadasH to write (and I really wish WaPo gave us a way to link to individual comments):

Do not give this development any DC tax incentives unless they promise and keep the promise to hire a high percentage of DC residents.We are sick and tired of subsidizing businesses in DC that in return bring all of their out of town friends here to work in jobs that should go to Washingtonians.

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On Re-branding Midcity

At a well-attended meeting last night at Busboys and Poets, local business leaders and citizens gathered to discuss branding the area around 14th and U as “Midcity”, to create a more cohesive, arts-centric identity for neighborhoods bordered by 7th and 15th Streets and Florida and Rhode Island Avenues, NW. During a question and answer period, concerns were raised about the lack of inclusion of the area of Columbia Heights above Florida Avenue (too poor?), and the focus on theaters and galleries vs. restaurant and retail establishments. The City Paper was there, and they captured some of the skepticism:

“I have nothing in common with a business down at the Convention Center,” Fales said, noting that she wouldn’t necessarily even recommend someone walk that way at night. “I don’t want to be part of an arts district, because I’m already part of something–the Midcity Business Association.” Applause came from the back of the room.

For those wondering if Midcity is as contrived as “NoMa”, see this post by DCist about the term’s history; it contains a picture of a map from 1937 utilizing the designation.

SportsZone is Coming to Columbia Heights


Sheeds/Air Force 1s. SportsZone is known for sneakers.

DC USA, the crowning retail establishment of gentrification-central (Columbia Heights), is about to get another new business (finally). Prince of Petworth has the scoop:

I’ve just learned that the newest tenant coming to DC USA will be a SportsZone. They are a sports and apparel company with locations in MD, VA and DC. They’ll be located between the Lane Bryant and Staples on the 14th St, NW side. They are looking to open by the end of Nov.

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Speak Up for Food Trucks

Breakfast from Sauca

Sauca, one of many mobile purveyors of food in DC.

If you are enjoying the diverse array of food trucks which currently dot DC, especially around lunch time, you may want to speak up– by 5pm today. Yes, the deadline to comment has been extended. The Washington Business Journal explains why you’d want to:

D.C.’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs recently proposed regulations regarding the city’s many food carts, as part of a general overhaul the department has been doing regarding street vending in the city. But some business owners are against the regulations, and the food trucks in general, saying they create unfair competition for the existing businesses which draw lunch crowds.

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